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When the Shuttle program nearly ended - in 1988
March 28, 2009 3:36 AM   Subscribe

"I said to myself, 'we are going to die.'" Space Shuttle commander Hoot Gibson on his reaction as he saw pictures from the Shuttle's robot arm of gouged and missing tiles along its underbelly. Shades of Columbia - but this was mission STS-27, over fourteen years earlier. Yet mission control discounted the reports from orbit, perhaps misled by the poor quality of the downlinked images that resulted from encryption demanded by the mission's secretive military profile. In the end, Atlantis made it back, but with visible damage along her right flank. But like most classified DoD missions of the time, little was reported, and NASA was arguably wary of drawing attention to the near-loss of only the second flight since the Challenger disaster. But if this near-miss had been better known, might NASA have been more concerned about indications of debris damage during the launch of STS-107?
posted by Major Clanger (28 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
We're lucky we only lost two crews on that death-trap.

Here's to the next generation of manned flight.
posted by bardic at 5:23 AM on March 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


so, basically, NASA knew exactly how much damage falling insulation foam could do to the shuttle but kept on flying anyway? so who exactly was held accountable for Columbia?
Years later, Gibson would be asked to brief the Columbia Accident Investigation Board about his experiences aboard Atlantis and as the tale was told, "their jaws dropped," he said.
Their jaws dropped because they realized they were going to have to paper over what would amount to involuntary manslaughter in any private industry. I think NASA is another one of those cold war institutions that needs a stable cleaning. maybe you could just start fresh.
posted by geos at 6:47 AM on March 28, 2009


This really pisses me off, what the hell.
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 7:01 AM on March 28, 2009


The next generation of manned flight, hopefully run privately by folks with fear of massive wrongful death lawsuits.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:36 AM on March 28, 2009


All manned launchers, and space flight in general, are pretty dangerous compared to the every day levels of risk that most of us face. The participants are all very well aware of the danger they face. Which is not to excuse the bad design and operational decisions that have made things even more dangerous than necessary, but I don't think it's fair to apply regular industrial safety expectations. This is more like the early explorers venturing out to discover the new world, knowing they might not make it.

I wonder how much the Space Shuttle's resemblance to a plane causes an expectation of plane-like safety levels? Because oddly enough it's that very resemblance to a plane that causes some extra safety risks compared to a traditional capsule design. Lots of other design decisions have turned out to be bad ideas too.

For instance, if you want to bring back the main engines for re-use, this leads to putting them on the orbiter, which then has to be mounted on the side of an external tank, rather than being essentially a glider sitting on top of a launcher. Which seemed OK at the time, before NASA understood the potential damage that foam and ice shed from the tank could cause.

Originally the goal was not to even have an external tank (since it can't be re-used) and if all the fuel had been carried internally then that would also have prevented these kinds of problems.

My impression of the Shuttle's development history is of a process that started with a set of goals to be met, and then the design got gradually altered to take various practicalities and limitations into account, to the point where many of the goals were not being met any more and the overall safety and operational cost got way out of control. One of those sequences of decisions where somebody should have said wait a minute, we are so far from where we thought we'd be that we should start over.

Then in a final irony, some of the goals that were still being met (such as large cross-range ability for certain anticipated military missions that never happened) became irrelevant, but the design compromises necessary to meet them (such as large wings vulnerable to damage) couldn't be changed any more.
posted by FishBike at 7:41 AM on March 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


hopefully run privately by folks with fear of massive wrongful death lawsuits.

Nononononononono.

The problem here, and with the shuttle itself was the military having too much say over it's construction and this specific flight. Why the hell did the pictures have to be encrypted if they're looking at the tiles? That's just flat out stupid paranoia.

Keep the civilian and military space programs separate. They can share technologies, sure, but their missions have different aims. The military is used to risking lives and those are the last people you want with final say so over a civilian mission or program.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:46 AM on March 28, 2009 [5 favorites]


Great post.

While space travel is inherently dangerous, it is far safer than routine long distance sailing voyages in the 'new world' era when losses of hundreds of men per ship were commonplace.

IMHO, we should continue Shuttle flights until the Ares/Orion systems are ready. Maintaining the skill sets and launch capability is important. While I applaud private space launch efforts, they simply can't compare to the Shuttle's load capacity and flexibility of mission at this time.

Efforts like the final Hubble repair are only realized by the shuttle at this time. No private spacecraft in development could handle that effort. Nor could Ares/Orion...
posted by Argyle at 7:57 AM on March 28, 2009


maybe you could just start fresh.

Yes, it's a mess. Divide US space efforts up a little more honestly.

In one division, concentrate on missile development, orbital fighter pilots, spy satellites, interceptors, planting American flags and pulling up Russian and Chinese flags, etc. All the Buck Rogers, Us-vs-Them stuff. This is the military service you join if you want to see space like air force pilots see the sky. If you fly, you might die. That's part of the job.

In the other division, concentrate on research to benefit everyone. Pure science, international cooperation, open systems, unmanned scientific instruments, etc. To get things into space, pay the US missile division or any other governmental or commercial space service in the world -- whoever has the best price and reliability. No people in this division go to space unless people are the subject of the experiment. This is the division you join if you want to do real science (with no ulterior military or commercial motives) and discover new worlds (without putting your dirty Earth feet on them). You won't die in action in this division unless an office vending machine falls over on you.

The divisions could share services and facilities, but the philosophies and goals would be different. And let businesses remain an informal third division that develops commercial satellites and buys and sells launch services via any rocketry group anywhere in the world, including the US missile division if it offers competitive services.
posted by pracowity at 8:39 AM on March 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


ok...the REAL villian in this piece is a little company called (and by little, i mean multi-billion-dollar defense contractor) Lockheed Martin, who designed and built the tiles. this book (which is so super-amazing-excellent btw...a complete encyclopedia of information about the shuttle) tells the whole story of lockheeds immense and CRAZY costly failure with these tiles. know how they're attached? they're GLUED to a big piece of FELT, which is GLUED to the bottom of the shuttle. that's it. now, retaining pins would conduct heat, so thats out, but even simple shaping of the tiles (like those in a 15 puzzle for example) would keep these things from doing what they like to do in orbit, i.e. falling off. the cost of shaping the tiles was seen as too expensive early on in development, but if they had simply bitten the bullet and done it, it's unlikely that these things would have gone hundreds of BILLIONS of dollars over budget with the acres of problems involved in getting a piece of foam to stick to a piece of felt without crushing the foam, and still pretty much being a total failure...tiles have fallen off on pretty much EVERY mission. these tiles are the single most expensive part of the shuttle and pretty much the only reason the STS went over budget. and by 'over budget', i mean like a trillion dollars over the last 30 yrs. lockheed sucks ass.
posted by sexyrobot at 11:37 AM on March 28, 2009 [4 favorites]


In related news: Space Shuttle Discovery is due to land in under 28 minutes. Watch it live online here.
posted by ericb at 11:45 AM on March 28, 2009


you can't have a truly private space program because the liabilities are just too large: sending huge amounts of explosive/toxic material high into the air being chased by fire! the same problem applies to nuclear energy.

but basically NASA decided that the lives of the flight crews of the shuttles weren't worth the political cost of shutting down the shuttle program.


In one division, concentrate on missile development, orbital fighter pilots, spy satellites, interceptors, planting American flags and pulling up Russian and Chinese flags, etc. All the Buck Rogers, Us-vs-Them stuff. This is the military service you join if you want to see space like air force pilots see the sky. If you fly, you might die. That's part of the job.

In the other division, concentrate on research to benefit everyone.


but that's not the way it works. the civilian and scientific projects are floating on the foundation of the military-industrial complex: the business of space is sending up defense/intelligence satellites. without those satellites you wouldn't have the trained people and technology to do the other stuff. the US space program has always been a military program with a civilian pr front office.
posted by geos at 11:59 AM on March 28, 2009


"Why the hell did the pictures have to be encrypted if they're looking at the tiles? That's just flat out stupid paranoia"

Yup.

You'd think - that if security was that much a concern - they would have a simple real time algorithm that didn't kill the quality of the images. That's just plain pathetic. I mean dirty gutter masturbatory schizophrenic hobo pathetic.

Of course, there is the possibility that military forces expected from the get go that any video sent from space might have something to hide.
posted by Xoebe at 1:01 PM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


I wonder how much the Space Shuttle's resemblance to a plane causes an expectation of plane-like safety levels?

That may be part of the problem, but I think the main problem with expectations is that they get a nice mix of nice-looking civilian-looking people (Jewish woman, Japanese American man, African American man, and an Irish-Lebanese-German-English-Native-American New England schoolteacher) and they all go off smiling and waving like it's just a little field trip, so you don't figure it could be all that dangerous. Whereas reality is closer to a couple of hardened military test pilots hanging on for dear life to the controls of a big scary overcomplicated and slightly used rocket plane that is strapped like Wile E. Coyote to the side of a couple of giant July 4th rockets.

And then.
posted by pracowity at 2:29 PM on March 28, 2009


Human space flight: odds of getting yourself killed:

Shuttle Launches: 123
Shuttle Disasters: 2

Soviet/Russian Capsule Launches: 96
Soviet/Russian Capsule Disasters: 2 (Soyuz 1, Soyuz 11)

Overall, if you go up in space you're looking at about a 2% chance of getting yourself killed. It doesn't seem to matter much what you're flying. The space shuttle has obvious, glaring safety problems, but space flight is so inherently risky that the lethal flaws in the next design are likely to become apparent only after one of them blows up. The reason to replace the shuttle is cost. It was supposed to save money by being reusable, but that didn't happen.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 4:04 PM on March 28, 2009


I'm so accustomed to live streaming video of shuttle missions that I can't comprehend a mission where even mission control didn't get pictures. But of course it's easy to forget that cold war paranoia was very tangible in 1988.
posted by Chinese Jet Pilot at 4:13 PM on March 28, 2009


The next generation of manned flight, hopefully run privately by folks with fear of massive wrongful death lawsuits.

lolwhat
posted by DU at 5:48 PM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


"You'd think - that if security was that much a concern - they would have a simple real time algorithm that didn't kill the quality of the images. That's just plain pathetic. I mean dirty gutter masturbatory schizophrenic hobo pathetic."

This had to be done for video with computers available in 1988. Better would have been the ability to send encrypted high resolution still photos. Easy to say in hind sight.
posted by Mitheral at 6:39 PM on March 28, 2009


To get military funding, the shuttle's requirements were to include launching KH-11 spy satellites, which are pretty big. The shuttle's payload bay is exactly the size of a KH-11.
posted by Cosmo7 at 6:47 PM on March 28, 2009


Yet mission control discounted the reports from orbit, perhaps misled by the poor quality of the downlinked images

It was mission control that asked them to take a look in the first place. I don't buy this line. I think Houston believed they were dead, too, but policy prevented them from saying so. In fact, there may have even been a ghoulish debate of the effect, We need them to take photos so we know if they don't get back.

Really, it's a pretty odd culture NASA has, blending scientists and test pilots and bureaucrats. The astronauts are just tools, and they know it.

But if this near-miss had been better known, might NASA have been more concerned about indications of debris damage during the launch of STS-107?

In fact, and it remains surprising that this did not change after Challenger, the NASA culture encourages normalization of risk. That STS-27 survived simply added to the data showing that some tile damage wasn't all that bad.
posted by dhartung at 9:15 PM on March 28, 2009


the NASA culture encourages normalization of risk.
Could be because it's a great death.
Taking the assholery out of the equation I mean (Lockheed, the Joint Chiefs, intel community, all that).
Plenty of mundane ways to go: slip in the shower, car accident, heart attack. Plenty of nasty ways to go: slow cancer, colostomy bag, painful infection. Plenty of stupid ways, plenty of scary ways - million ways to die.
Death in space while on a space mission? Not at the bottom of my list. Not up there with dying saving kids from a fire or something, but you apply to be an astronaut you're probably not the 'die peacefully in my sleep' type of person. You're probably a bit more on edge. Like strap on a diaper and drive hundreds of miles on a motorcycle at high speed type on edge (but y'know, more in a good way mostly).
Unfortunately assholery is part of the equation. So why put people on the spacecraft if you're not going to listen to the people on the spacecraft?
The most advanced feedback system available to the human brain is another human brain. And in the final analysis, it's the most important on not only the most fundamental levels, but on a wide spectrum of interconnected levels.
Your gauge might be perfectly correct about how fast you were going, they're still going to take the cop's word for it.
posted by Smedleyman at 9:57 PM on March 28, 2009


Hey, good post!
posted by killdevil at 10:15 PM on March 28, 2009


...and still pretty much being a total failure...tiles have fallen off on pretty much EVERY mission. these tiles are the single most expensive part of the shuttle and pretty much the only reason the STS went over budget. and by 'over budget', i mean like a trillion dollars over the last 30 yrs.

A lot of unsubstantiated ranting here. One thing I take issue with is how are the tiles a total failure? The tiles were designed to protect the orbiter during reentry. Since there has never been a failure of the tiles resulting in a loss of the orbiter, I'd have to say they've so far achieved the goal they were shooting for (Columbia's loss was a failure of the carbon panels on the wing leading edge, NOT the tiles.) My impression is that the process was not understood and trained for correctly early in the process, but has since been improved greatly.

I would say the failure here and with Columbia wasn't the thermal protection system, but the design flaw of configuring the launch vehicle so that the thermal protection system was subject to debris coming off the orbiter.

The shuttle has several crucial issues, but the tiles, glued to felt, have proven to be pretty dependable.
posted by Mcable at 6:52 AM on March 29, 2009


Oh, and great post Major Clanger!
posted by Mcable at 6:55 AM on March 29, 2009


NASA's biggest mistake in operating the space shuttle program is that from an early stage they would accept anomalies that were not necessarily "Crit-1 Events" (ie: those that would lead to loss of vehicle and crew) as normal operating procedure. Worse still, they would use those recorded anomalies after successful flights as benchmarks - as in, "well, we did witness some burn-through of the SRB O-Ring on flights X, Y, and Z, but since it wasn't more than XX%, we'll accept this as a tolerable level."

Not only did STS 27 have problems with debris causing damage to tiles, Columbia had extensive damage on her maiden flight from debris falling from the external tank, along with tiles that were poorly bonded falling off of the vehicle. Notably there were tiles that Young and Crippen saw missing from the front of the OMS pods at the rear of the craft. Young, being smart, knew that if there were tiles missing from the OMS pods (relatively minimal concern for reentry), there was a good likelihood of tiles missing from the belly of the ship as well (massive concern for reentry). With no ability to scan the bottom to check, this missing tile phenomenon because "acceptable risk" throughout the program.

A little known story about STS-1 is that she almost didn't even complete the maiden flight. On ignition of the SRBs there was a massive acoustic wave from the ignition blast that reverberated back up and smacked the lower tail flap that extends below the main engines of the orbiter. This wave rotated the elevator in such a way that controllers were fearful it was damaged. Mission control never informed Young and Crippen of the event and luckily the orbiter returned successfully. After the mission Young commented that had he known what had occurred at ignition, and with no way of knowing the extent of damage to the elevon, he would have proceeded to an RTLS abort, a none-too-pleasant idea in itself. The idea behind RTLS (return to launch site) is that immediately following SRB separation the vehicle continues to travel for a bit, then, literally, flips itself around to travel in the opposite direction of its forward momentum to burn off speed, then jettison the external tank and land back at Kennedy.

RTLS has, thankfully, never been tried - although the original flightplan for STS-1 (ironically enough) was for it to be an RTLS abort, which, after seeing the abort option on paper, Young flat out refused to fly, considering it more of a suicide option than anything else: swinging the orbiter and ET stack around to go opposite its already considerable momentum was fraught with danger - you'd almost be safer trying to ditch in Spain or Africa.

Back on topic:

If you go back and look over the post-flight operations reports for the early shuttle flights in particular it becomes striking how incredibly lucky we were to not have lost a vehicle and crew within the first dozen flights, nevertheless the 25th. NASA accepted so many tolerable risks, from thermal protection to APU failures (I believe it was STS-3 or 4 where the APUs caught fire and the only saving grace was that the fire started just after touchdown so the ground crew could extinguish it without too much damage), O-Ring malfunctions, computer errors, landing gear problems, tire explosions on landing, electrical malfunctions, etc, that it really is shocking.

Just beacuse the vehicle and crew came home safely doesn't mean you don't have a problem that needs to be investigated and the causal chain better understood. NASA was willing to overlook these risks for a variety of reasons: schedule pressure, Congressional pressure, managerial hubris, etc. I have always said, and will continue to say, that it is a God-given miracle each time those birds launch and land successfully. The complexity is mindboggling, and the sad fact is that it is only now, almost 30 years after first flying, that seasoned engineers are comfortable understanding most (not all!) of the dynamics and limits and management is humble enough to recognize when to hit the pause button. Sadly, it took two major disasters to teach about the importance of managerial dissent and root cause analysis in complex systems, but doing so has made the vehicles immensely more safe. In both losses the problem was not engineering, it was managerial: the ships performed to their engineered specifications and beyond, it was management who failed to understand and respect this complexity when someone says, "I think we need to re-visit this problem".

NASA made the shuttle program "operational" after its 4th flight. Arguably, it is still "experimental" after 30 years. NASA could have and should have grounded the shuttle after those first flights and made all of the fixes that their engineers were crying for, but political pressure was too great after all of the delays in getting Columbia in the air in 1981. Thankfully, NASA was willing to do this more throughout the 1990s, famously for a major wiring defect they detected, then later for various problems related to valves or other pieces of equipment shared among the orbiters.

Almost 30 years on, I think you'd find many at NASA who privately say they're finally confident in the processes, procedures and systems in place. The biggest take away from the entire shuttle program, however, may not be so much the engineering feat that it is, but the lessons for management of complex systems.
posted by tgrundke at 12:06 PM on March 29, 2009 [7 favorites]


Young flat out refused to fly, considering it more of a suicide option than anything else:

John Young has been a hero of me since I was in the sixth grade. What an incredible man. He had a helluva career, flying the Gemini spacecraft, Apollo Command/Service Module, Apollo Lunar Module, the Space Shuttle and driving the Lunar Roving Vehicle on the moon.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:52 PM on March 29, 2009


The next generation of manned flight, hopefully run privately by folks with fear of massive wrongful death lawsuits.

Leotrotsky, I think you've got a contradiction in terms here: folks who have a fear of wrongful death suits aren't going to do manned flights. That's why I'm skeptical of the whole "let's privatize space travel" concept; instead of space colonization, you'll just get unmanned satellite launches, and the occasional suborbital flight for millionaire thrillseekers..
posted by happyroach at 4:55 PM on March 29, 2009


RTLS has, thankfully, never been tried [...]

Yes, thankfully, in the sense that it looks like a pretty dubious procedure. This also highlights one of the reasons space flight continues to be so dangerous. None of the Shuttle's abort options have ever been tried, and for the first couple of minutes, there aren't any abort options at all.

Compare this to, say, takeoff in an airliner, where they are careful to make sure there are always abort options, and they've all been tried many times before any new design enters service. For there to be real safety improvements in space flight, there's going to have to be a change to a different mindset much more like airliner design and testing.

I don't know if it's the right time for that to happen yet, but that's what it's going to take.
posted by FishBike at 7:27 PM on March 29, 2009


I don't have a problem with it being dangerous to go to space, or even with tiles falling off the shuttle once.

I am horrified that no lessons were learned from the mistakes that were made. NASA is more broken than the shuttles, and it hurts to say that. I adore NASA. Unfortunately, they seem to be about as functional as that crazy uncle the family refuses to talk about, the one who died ranting in a snow storm under an overpass.
posted by QIbHom at 10:31 AM on March 30, 2009


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